How to be a victim blamer

// 17 December 2012

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 I will preface this post by saying I’d really rather not be writing about Caitlin Moran. I’d really rather she hadn’t put her foot in it again.

But given her media profile, the fact that she’s being held up as a shining example of modern-day feminism by non-feminists and that so many women across the country enjoy her writing, I think it’s important to highlight when she gets things wrong.

The following is taken from an interview with Australian blogger Mia Freedman, and has been doing the rounds on Twitter:

[MF] And of course it should never be about victim blaming but I worry about the idea of saying to women “don’t change your behaviour, this is not your problem!”. I feel like that’s saying, “You should be able to leave your car unlocked with the keys in the ignition, or leave your front door unlocked, and expect nobody to burgle you.”

[CM] Yes. It’s on that basis that I don’t wear high heels – other than I can’t walk in them – because when I’m lying in bed at night with my husband, I know there’s a woman coming who I could rape and murder, because I can hear her coming up the street in high heels, clack-clack-clack. And I can hear she’s on her own, I can hear what speed she’s coming at, I could plan where to stand to grab her or an ambush. And every time I hear her I think, “Fuck, you’re just alerting every fucking nutter to where you are now. And [that it’s a concern] that’s not right.

Society should be different. But while we’re waiting for society to change, there’s just certain things you have to do. But again the thing is, so many things you could do instead are predicated on having money. She could come out of a nightclub and get into a taxi, that would be the right thing to do.

Where to start? How about with the facts. Only 9% of rapes are committed by strangers. Women are much more likely to be raped or attacked by men they know, in their own home or workplace. So it’s hugely unhelpful and unsisterly – not to mention creepy as hell – for Moran to immediately link the sound of a woman walking home in high heels with her being raped and murdered. Women already feel excessively afraid of walking home at night, and all she’s done here is potentially increased this fear among her many female fans.

In reality, it would actually make more sense for that woman walking home alone in high heels to spot Moran in bed with her husband through the crack in her bedroom curtains and think “Shit, Caitlin’s in her own home, sharing a bed with a man she’s in a relationship with. Does she know she’s putting herself at increased risk of sexual violence?”. Of course, that would be a horrible thing to think, but it’s no more horrible than Moran’s own musings. It just seems worse because Moran’s narrative is what we’re used to hearing.

Then we have this idea that a woman alerting others to her presence is inviting rape and violence. It’s actually pretty damn hard to be a full participant in society without alerting other people to your existence. It’s incredible how often we have to state this, but unlike cars and houses, women are in fact living beings who have the right to freedom of movement and expression. Telling us that we shouldn’t wear heels or should only go to a nightclub if we’re going to get a taxi home impinges on these rights.

And it does so to absolutely no purpose.

Women get raped by taxi drivers. We get raped when we’re wearing super-practical flat shoes (and I’m pretty sure your DMs make a fair old racket when you’re clomping down the street, Caitlin). We may get raped if we cover up and stay at home out of sight, and we may get raped if we wear next to nothing and totter home drunkenly serenading the neighbours at 3am on a Friday night. There is therefore no point curtailing our freedom in order to try and avoid male sexual violence. Encouraging women to do so is basically telling women to give in to male control and live in fear. That’s categorically not what feminism is about.

Finally, let’s just make it clear that rape is not a product of mental illness. Rapists are not “fucking nutters”. They are often very ordinary men, who may or may not have any history of mental illness. Reinforcing the stereotype of the crazed man jumping out of a bush is not only disablist (in that it increases the stigma suffered by people with mental illnesses), it actually puts women at risk. Because when they are raped by a friend, a partner, or a perfectly sane “nice guy”, the police, the judiciary and the members of the public on the jury are less likely to believe it was rape.

Both Moran and Freedman’s comments are straight-up victim blaming, and they hurt women everywhere.

The image shows a placard from Sheffield Reclaim the Night 2012 that reads “I’m safer walking home alone”. The other side of the placard read “9 in 10 rape victims know their attacker”.

Comments From You

Tamara // Posted 17 December 2012 at 12:39 pm

Oh goody, another article where we get to trash Caitlin Moran because she says something that doesn’t fit with your brand of feminism.

As a person who has narrowly escaped being raped by – and he was – a fucking nutter who was a stranger because I made a 2 bad decisions about my safety I see nothing wrong with telling women to be aware. I would love to live in a world where I could go where I want, when I want, how I want but I don’t. But I do make responsible decisions and live my life fully.

And well done – now make women worry about taxi drivers! You seem to be saying – women be terrified everywhere because everywhere you are threatened – in home with your lover, outside with taxi drivers, that guy who is your friend and a ‘nice guy’ – view every man with suspicion, but be sure to do nothing to try to minimise that threat because then you are giving in.

How about a brand of feminism that says go out and live your life, but make choices that put your safety first. for me, I was living in a country where it was unsafe for me to be out alone at night, and it was after dark (I started a long jog too late) and I chose not to cross the road to not be beside a steep escarpment leading to a forest. I didn’t stop jogging but I made different choices to keep me safer. That’s not victim blaming – its common sense.

purplefeminist // Posted 17 December 2012 at 1:09 pm

Excellent article.

“while we’re waiting for society to change, there’s just certain things you have to do” – are we expecting society to change by simply switching our footwear? Society is never going to change unless we challenge our attitudes and ask others to do the same.

Laura // Posted 17 December 2012 at 1:40 pm

@ Tamara: I’m really sorry that happened to you. But I’m not saying that women should be terrified all the time. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t be made to feel particularly afraid at night or when wearing high heels, because we aren’t more at risk then than at any other time. There’s no point being scared all the time because we can’t control whether men choose to attack us or not. We should therefore live our lives the way we want to and – yes – make our own choices that make us feel safe. But these choices are down to us as individuals – they shouldn’t be dictated by Caitlin Moran or anyone else. For example, I personally feel much safer walking home alone than being locked in a taxi with a strange man.

Most importantly, the choices we make regarding our own safety and freedom should have no effect on how we are viewed and treated if we are attacked. Yet if I was attacked when I chose to walk home rather than take a taxi, people would entirely unfairly blame me at least in part for the actions of my attacker. Moran’s comments feed into that blame, which is why I wanted to respond to them.

I don’t have a personal desire to “trash” Caitlin Moran. I think she’s funny and I do think the kind of accessible, non-academic version of feminism (or, more accurately, anti-sexism) she espouses is helpful to an extent. The problem for me is that she refuses to listen to or learn from other feminists, which has resulted in her trampling over other women, and I think that’s a massive shame.

I think it’s important to tackle victim-blaming whenever it comes up, even moreso when it comes from a woman who calls herself a feminist and who young women and women new to feminism look up to.

sianmarie // Posted 17 December 2012 at 1:57 pm

What Laura said.

I wrote something about too

It’s not about trashing Caitlin Moran, but about exploring how victim blaming and rape myths work to all too often deny women justice, and how we need to challenge that. Whether it’s spoken by George Galloway or a feminist voice, we must always challenge a culture that seeks to put the responsibility of rape on a woman’s behaviour and not on the rapist.

Cila // Posted 17 December 2012 at 3:16 pm

Mia Freedman’s comments are far more alarming and insulting. Comparing women to pieces of property that shouldn’t be left ‘unlocked’ is beyond offensive. Unfortunately the victim-blamers are in the majority. According to a 2010 UK survey more than half the respondents thought rape victims were at least partly to blame.

I wrote a blog at Irresponsibility suggesting, tongue firmly in cheek, that “Women have had centuries to learn the rules of rape. We know the only kind of rape victim who’s of any use to the CPS is a teetotal virgin in a muumuu. We know that a good rape victimes doesn’t drink, take drugs, kiss, flirt, wear skimpy clothes…”

ClaireS // Posted 17 December 2012 at 5:28 pm

I abhor the culture of victim shaming – in theory. But sometimes I think that in practice, you have to be pragmatic.

Here’s an example. In the city where I went to university, there’s an old tow path that runs alongside a canal, near the principle halls of residence. It’s an obvious route to use for anyone out jogging or cycling. Except, it was badly lit, and often took you out of public view, and it was frequently the scene of sexual assaults (and also muggings) – several a term.

We had a welcome welfare lecture, as freshers. What should the Head of Welfare have told us about this tow path? Ideally she would have told men not to assault women who used it. But the assaulters had never been, up till this point, anyone she could have addressed, even if she had somehow been able to predict and identify them. In that 30 minute lecture she could not have changed the terrible culture which gives rise to a mindset in which it’s okay to sexually assault women.

What she did, then, was to recommend, in accordance with police advice, that we – female and male students, all – avoid that route at all costs, because to use it would pose an increased risk of assault compared to using alternative routes that were less regularly the scene of assaults.

Is this victim-blaming? Perhaps. But I’m glad she told us, because if she hadn’t, and someone in that lecture had used the tow path, unaware, and been assaulted – it wouldn’t have been their fault, and it wouldn’t have been the welface officer’s fault – but it would perhaps have been avoidable. Pragmatically, it was better to warn us, and I’m glad she did.

Laura // Posted 17 December 2012 at 6:22 pm

Hi ClaireS, I don’t think that is victim blaming, actually. The advice referred to a very specific route where there was factual evidence that sexual assaults had happened on a number of occasions, and was given to both men and women. It makes sense to share this information, and it would only become victim blaming if someone chose to ignore it and was then blamed for being attacked.

It’s very different from a blanket warning for women not to walk home at night or not to wear certain shoes, when there’s no evidence that wearing certain shoes or walking home at night mean you are more likely to be sexually assaulted.

ClaireS // Posted 18 December 2012 at 10:12 am

Hi Laura,

I take your point about general c specific advice. But it seems silly, to me, to differentiate so starkly between that specific advice and the advice that followed in the next part of the lecture, which was to avoid all dimly-lit, out-of-the-way routes in general, and if not able to avoid them completely, then to make sure you never used them alone. Those were the characteristics of the route that made it a particularly dangerous one, after all. It’s a simple and seemingly logical extrapolation based on a reasonable-enough assumption – but, based on your article I get the impression that you would consider generic advice to “avoid certain kinds of routes” and “not walk around alone” is sliding towards victim-blaming. Yet, it seems to me to be a rational step. Why list many specific spots or actions to avoid when they share common characteristics and you can more efficiently make a more general statement?

ClaireS // Posted 18 December 2012 at 11:06 pm

Laura – apologies for the additional comment; the first was made before my second cup of coffee!

I also think that your logic is slightly off. There are (at least) two ways of opposing comments like Moran’s and I think you’re conflating them. Firstly, you can disagree with statements about how women should avoid certain actions to reduce their vulnerability on the grounds that they don’t genuinely make women less vulnerable (and I agree, there’s no proof that wearing flats, for example, makes you less likely to become a victim of rape).

Or, you can take issue with such comments on principle – on the principle that to suggest to women that they act in certain ways to reduce their risk of rape is to put the impetus on THEM to act, rather than putting the impetus on men to stop raping women (something I’m we all agree is the most desirable outcome by a long way).

I believe that the condemnation of victim blaming behaviour is based on the second of those two attitudes. In this case, it’s irrelevant whether the advice is foolish and not evidence-based (as in Moran’s examples), or whether it’s genuinely proven to reduce risk (as in my original tow-path example) – the point is that it should never be women’s behaviour that has to be circumscribed or limited, but rather rapists’ actions which are addressed and tackled.

My point is that I would, in theory, love to subscribe to this theory – but that in the real world, we have to follow whatever practical advice we can glean in order to make women less vulnerable – at the same time, hopefully, as tackling damaging and harmful attitudes in men.

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